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English churches - always worth a pause

Fairford Church

When the comic film star WC Fields, a lifelong atheist, was in hospital, close to the end of his life, the story goes that a visiting friend caught him sitting up in bed, reading the Bible. What are doing, the astonished friend asked. Field replied, in that drawl that somehow emphasised his on screen cynicism: “Looking for loopholes”.

Who knows how we may behave then death is ringing the doorbell? Maybe I’ll need to apologise for a years oi enjoyment exploring churches without once feeling the tug of divine grace. Until then I’ll continue to urge anyone who’ll read or listen to never walk past one without an urgent reason.

It doesn’t have to be well known, or endowed with riched, such as St Mary’s at Fairford in Gloucestershire, which boasts, arguably, the most complete array of medieval stained glass windows in Britain. There the eye was most drawn the sinner depected in the Great West Window (The Last Judgement) being transported into the fiery pit by wheelbarrow, a detail though to be the origin of the phrase “going to hell in a handcart”.

It could be the less celebrated St James in Shere, Surrey where, in 1329, a woman was walled up in an anchorite’s cell. You may see the quatrefoil opening through which she received the sacrament and the narrow “squint” that enabled her to view mass at the high altar. Then there are the Saxon churches in Hampshire’s Meon Valley: All Saints in East Meon, perhaps, described by Pevsner as one of the count’s “most thrilling village churches”, or that at Corhampton, with its 12th century frescoes.

Or in Somerset, there is St Andrew’s in the sleepy village of Trent, where the Archbishop who officiated at the late Queen’s coronation settled toward the end of his life see my feature article here).

St Andrew's. Trent

You could never run out. Sir Simon Jenkins picked no fewer than 1000 of them for his exhaustively researched book (England’s Thousand Best Churches). He has written that he is “intensely careful of churches, and not just churches as buildings, glorious as many of them are”, adding that those who deride the church should recognise them also as “institutions of local art, ancestry, history and ceremony”. And, like Fields, he is an atheist.


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